Tag Archives: New Zealand Wines

Mahi Wines, Marlborough, New Zealand

BrianBicknell

The best way to wine taste when visiting Marlborough, New Zealand? Hit the Marlborough Sounds in a boat with a winemaker.

Founder and owner of Mahi Wines Brian Bicknell generously took time on a stormy Saturday morning to motor us out across the water in his 100 year-old launch to lunch at the charmingly rustic Lochmara Lodge. As if straight out of a movie set, a tender made its way from the pier to retrieve us from Bicknell’s boat and deliver us to a few plates of fish and chips, the region’s famous green lipped mussels, and a couple of glasses of crisp Mahi Chardonnay.

We took a post-lunch stroll through the densely wooded hills behind the property while Bicknell pointed out the indigenous flora and fauna the region’s locals have been working hard to restore. Fortunately, the brooding sky that had greeted us in the morning cleared into a sunny Marlborough Day. Bicknell took a spin in a hammock; I had a turn at steering the boat (foot on the wheel, head out the hatch). After docking, we stopped over at the winery to conduct a proper tasting before Bicknell dropped me off at the Marlborough Wine & Food Festival that afternoon. A rare perfect day.

Signature Wines and Prices: (in NY)

  • Mahi Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc              USD 19.99
  • Mahi Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc           USD 27.99
  • Mahi Twin Valleys Chardonnay                       USD 27.99
  • Mahi Marlborough Pinot Noir                          USD 29.99

What philosophy guides your viticulture and winemaking? Hopefully I can cover both areas. At Mahi, we own or lease four vineyards and also work with five growers. The vineyards we have control over are certified organic, as we see this as perhaps being the best way of expressing a particular vineyard — by not adding too much to it nor changing the character of the site. Some growers are also organic and some are ‘sustainable’, and it is a personal choice; I am not going to force our growers to grow organically. We tend to keep the canopies open and crops lower so that we get good exposure to the sun and the wind to minimise Botrytis pressure.

In the winery, we take a relatively ‘hands-off’ approach with the goal being to make wines that are textural, subtle, and complex. Most of our wines are hand-picked, whole-cluster pressed with no additions to the juice, then run straight to French without settling. We then leave the juice and after maybe eight days the natural yeast from the vineyard starts the fermentation and we often get six different strains of yeast doing the ferment, rather than one if we inoculated.

We do not use press wine, just the free-run, which gives a more elegant wine, as the pH stays lower and the palate is a little more linear, rather than getting soapy with the press wine.

I love the concept of ‘Real Wine’, wines that have not been messed around with and hopefully show their vineyards in the purest possible way. Sounds a bit hippyish but hope you know what I am getting at?!

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?  I think Mother Nature can obviously throw us the biggest curve balls, but I have been fortunate not to work a really bad harvest. Apparently, 1995 was like that in Marlborough, but I was at Errázuriz in Chile at that time, and we had a great one.

In many ways, if you make the right decisions through the year, you get to experience the great diversity of the weather, and it is one of my favourite things about wine, which is that it does change every year. If you crop at an appropriate level for your vineyard, and keep the canopy open, you should always be able to harvest good fruit, whereas if you over crop the fruit, it will not ripen fully and the wines will be mean and lean, and you will probably leave them hanging too long into the season, and push them into the Botrytis period.

MahiBottles

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grape growing and winemaking in your region? Every year I want to kiss the ‘gross physical characteristics’ of Marlborough, which could get a bit tricky.

I think the benefits of making wine in Marlborough are:

  • We have the Richmond Ranges to trap most of the rain coming from the west;
  • The Inland and the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, which force a lot of the cold, moist winds from the south out to sea, and that go across the end of our valley;
  • The bottom of the North Island protects us from cyclonic conditions that can come down from the Pacific in February or March, two very important months for us;
  • We have a low mean temperature of the warmest month, meaning the fruit retains a lot of the fruit compounds;
  • A long period over 10 degrees Celsius so that the vines work longer and ripen some of the later varieties; and
  • A good diurnal differentiation.

The drawbacks:

  • Too far from a major city to allow for good cellar-door business;
  • Too many anonymous labels made for a market that is cheapening the overall image of Sauvignon Blanc, which I think is a noble variety;
  • Too many people in the industry for the wrong reasons, though this is a worldwide phenomenon; and
  • Too many people who don’t truly love wine, though as above, this is a problem throughout.

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? A greater appreciation of the range of varieties that can be produced. There is more regional differentiation and also inter-regional appreciation of sites.

I really love the Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir that is coming out of Marlborough, and loving some of the Syrah from Hawkes Bay.

MarlboroughSounds

How do you think Americans (or the outside world) perceive NZ wines? I do not think the US market has a very good understanding of NZ wine and that is probably an issue from our end, and also because of the three-tier system. I realize other countries cope with the three-tier system, but personally, I have found it harder to get in front of the people selling the wine as you are usually dealing with an importer, etc.

As of the end of November, the US now accounts for 25% of NZs wine sales by volume, up from 23% at the same time last year, so something is working, but I imagine a fair amount of that is Constellation and things like Cupcake. Complexity is working hard at the on-trade area of the market, so I can only assume that is helping the category in total also.

I think the people have a better understanding of NZ now than ten years ago but it is probably too strongly focused on Sauvignon Blanc. It has been good to have that as our calling card but to be considered a classic wine supplying country we need to prove we can do it with things like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in particular.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least?  My favourite wine region in the world is Burgundy, and probably least favourite is the Riverland area of Australia.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? I think Chardonnay is respected in certain circles but the main part of the market seems to think they are being clever when they say they do not touch Chardonnay. It is a classic variety, probably the best restaurant white wine because of its subtlety, and I do not understand how anyone can say ‘I do not drink Chardonnay’. I understand ‘I do not drink shit Chardonnay’, but no one is going to turn down great white Burgundy or Blancs de Blanc Champagne??

What do you drink at home when relaxing?

After a great Gin and Tonic, using Quina Fina Tonic Water, I have found I have been drinking a few wild ferment, barrel fermented Sauvignons over the Christmas break. Great structure for lighter white meats and heavier fish dishes, and refreshing enough for the summer afternoons. Other than that, Burgundy!

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?

We have an old launch, over 100 years old now, and I love getting out on the Marlborough Sounds in that. Spending the night on the boat with a good wine, good book, fresh fish and a good friend in a bay surrounded by native NZ bush is a pretty special event.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?  While Italy and France are real passions, I would love to visit India now. We export to 12 countries so I travel a lot but I have never experienced India, and after learning a lot about the country over the last few years, it is somewhere that I am really intrigued by.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Weirdly enough, one of the reasons that I am in the wine industry is that I have a Grand Trine, apparently meaning that when I was born, my three major planets were arranged in a equilateral triangle, so 120˚ angles between them all. I am not really into it, but someone interviewing me many years ago for a job at a wine store that really cemented my love of wine, was, so I got the job over a lot of other people, and the rest is history.

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Felton Road, Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand

FlyingwithBlairSetting a new definition for the term “flying winemaker”, Blair Walter is both renowned winemaker of Felton Road and local pilot. I had the pleasure of spending heaps (to use a Kiwi term) of time with this charming fellow during the Central Otago Pinot Fest, at the winery, and up in the air, soaring above the Milford Sound of South Island. Fortunately, the day was clear and still so we didn’t have to test his poor weather flight skills.

Blair has been the winemaker for Felton Road–founded in 1991–since 1996. He took some time before my arrival in New Zealand to answer questions about his winemaking, as well as reveal he was formerly a guitarist in a rock’n’roll band, the “Shagnasty & the Texan Medium Fries”. Fortunately, after visiting in person, I can say that the wines are phenomenally better than the name of that band.

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Pinot Noir ($40-$75 USD)
  • Chardonnay $30-$40)
  • Riesling $26 USD)

About the Vineyard (from the site):

Considerable research by Stewart Elms (hence the Elm tree logo) in 1991 identified the north facing slopes at the end of Felton Road, Bannockburn as being one of the warmest and most ideal sites in Central Otago for the growing and production of premium wine. Heat summation data and soil maps of the area, developed as a result of the construction of the Clyde dam, were helpful in this decision. The three different soils identified are free draining with low fertility characteristics, and combined with the unique climate, are ideal for the production of premium quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.

Our vineyards are managed by our own viticulturist, Gareth King, and his team of dedicated staff. Meticulous summer management of a single vertical shoot positioned (VSP) canopy ensures even and early fruit maturity. Shoot thinning, shoot positioning, leaf plucking and bunch thinning are all carried out by hand as required to ensure optimum quality fruit. We have inter-row planting of various different cover crops in order to assist in controlling vine vigour, improve soil health and general biodiversity.

What philosophy guides your winemaking? Our aim is to make vineyard-expressive wines of clarity, finesse, and precision; farm as sensitively as possible (Biodynamic certified on all 4 properties) and make the wines as hands-off as possible.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? We have low rainfall and low humidity; pair that with our warm days, and cool nights, plus high sunshine hours, and we’ve got very low disease risk. We get bright acidity from the cool nights that translates into vibrant wines; schist soils contribute to the mineral infused and driven wines.

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What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The ever increasing quality from ageing vines and minds!

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? The rest of the world regards NZ Pinot Noir as the finest Pinot Noirs outside of Burgundy. In America, it is different because you have your own very large domestic production of fine Pinot Noir.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Burgundy. Least? I love all wine regions that are making vineyard and regionally expressive wines (there will be some that don’t focus on this but I am not about to try and name them!).

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Riesling is a bit of a challenge for some – incredibly interesting and versatile as a food wine because of the possibility in our cool climate to make very balanced and poised wines of varying sweetness levels.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? White or Red Burgundy.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Sailing, flying, mountain biking, and tramping (hiking).

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Vietnam.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Was guitarist in a rock’n’roll band called “Shagnasty & the Texan Medium Fries!”

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Amisfield, Central Otago, New Zealand

StephLambertonredtractor

Stephanie Lambert, PhD, is one of a small percentage of female winemakers in Central Otago (and New Zealand generally). She started as assistant winemaker at Amisfield Vineyard in December 2008, and was promoted to winemaker in August of 2010.

Amisfield is still a young vineyard, like many in Otago—it was first planted in 1999, and rewarded with an inaugural vintage in 2002. They are members of the Sustainable Winegrowers of New Zealand. The owners of the winery opened a restaurant, Amisfield Bistro, not far from Queenstown, that developed a popular following for their locally sourced food and tasting menu called “Trust the Chef” which runs $65/person and requires a leisurely 3-hours of one’s time.

Stephanie answered a few questions prior to my arrival in New Zealand, although filled me in on much of her life while we tasted wines and had lunch at the Bistro. We dined on an excellent artisan bread board which had a flavorful sourdough and herb butter combo, plus whitebait (fish gold) and stuffed zucchini blossoms. Relatively unique to the region, Amisfield makes a small amount of Chenin Blanc—definitely track it down if visiting in person.

AmisfieldBistroZuchini

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Amisfield Pinot Noir $45
  • Pinot Gris $30
  • Riesling $25
  • Sauvignon Blanc $25
  • Plus other varieties in very small quantities: Chenin, Gruner, and Pinot Blanc

What philosophy guides your winemaking? Our goal is to make wines with personality, that are a pure and true expression of their site, the weather, and the people that help grow and guide the wine. In Maori: He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! means “It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”

At Amisfield we try to grow and make wines with integrity. We are very hands on in the vineyard with a full time permanent crew that has some of our longest serving staff. We want our raw environment to lead us rather than for us to put too much influence on the site. We are continuously trialing and experimenting with different techniques and applications in the vineyard to help balance our vines as well as have as little impact on the soils. We put as little on the vines as possible and try to maintain biodiversity in the vineyard. We have ducks, guinea fowl and trout in our ponds. We have an onsite wetland that treats all our winery wastewater which we can then re-use for irrigation. We are slowly converting one of our blocks to organic viticulture. We like weeds as this promotes biodiversity.

The grapes at the winery are treated very similar. We like to handle the grapes as little as possible and have a gravity flow winery built for Pinot Noir. I do not like to push the wines, and over the years I am becoming more relaxed with the grapes and the wines. For our Pinot Noir, we do natural fermentations; I like the complex wild dynamics!

With the whites, I use a combination of natural and inoculated fermentations. Again, I like to make wines with soul or personality. Some bits of the personality might be a bit strange but as long as they are telling a story, I am happy; imperfections can be interesting.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? In Central Otago, it is the weather: no two vintages are the same or can be predicted. I am very lucky at Amisfield, as the company’s philosophy matches my winemaking style. We are driven to make wines of interest, and not so much for the market.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? A benefit for grape growing is the perfect weather for Pinot Noir; but that same cool weather often makes it difficult to get our Chenin ripe. We have a South African Vineyard Manager, so the most important wine in the shed is the Chenin!

AmisfieldBistroFocaccia

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? We are still young but now have some history behind us. We are learning what works on our sites but are also young enough to plant or try different varieties. We have 13 vintages behind us now at Amisfield, and I am just starting to feel I understand the land and the grapes. We can taste our back vintages and see our progression not only in vine age but also as winemakers. It’s a very positive outlook for the region. I like how most winemakers from NZ have travelled and seen other techniques from around the world and come back home and adapt and use these to our wines.

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? Hopefully Americans perceive our wines as high quality and unique. (And not Australian.) Our wines are cutting edge, coming from a small yet sophisticated country. I think in general our products are perceived as premium.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? I had a fabulous time in Oregon but that could have been more for the Mexican food and tequila. I was there in 2003 and 2004,so the region and winemakers were still learning a lot, but it certainly made me see how passionate and focused the region was on Pinot Noir. I loved that. I fell in love with Pinot and I fell in love with the Pinot winemakers: their outlook, their friendliness, and dedication to the one grape was fascinating. I love Alsace and Burgundy also. Champagne was not pretty but has a very interesting history, especially since visiting gave me the opportunity to see exactly what the wars did to the region. Least favourite? Well, I worked in Australia for a while and I think the Riverland region in SA/Vic would be my least favourite. Never been there, but mass-produced, clean and calculated winemaking doesn’t suit me.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Well I must say I am a bit boring on this topic as I like the status quo grapes the most and I’m not much of an experimenter. Carignan, or closer to home, Gewürztraminer, perhaps.  I wish we made/planted more of Gewürzt. It’s a lovely wine when made well but also takes a lot of skill to perfect.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Riesling. I love Riesling with a hoppy pale ale on the side.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I am a solo mum to a 2 year old boy named Jasper, so all my spare time is spent with him having fun and playing games at Lake Wanaka.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would  you be? Right now, I would be sailing around the Whitsundays off the Australian coast. A relaxing holiday in the sun, no hassles, just swimming — I love swimming. Probably more realistically, if I was around home, I would be on the wild west coast of NZ, camping with my son in the tent at Okarito Lagoon, hunting for greenstone on the beach, making drift wood huts, and looking at the stars. The added bonus is that there is no cell phone coverage!

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Hmm, not much surprising here. I ran away to Australia for my education and then came back to NZ, so all my secrets are in Oz. University was so much fun, that’s why I stayed so long, and then once I finished my PhD I went back to get a Brewing Post Grad certificate also. Yet to be put to use…

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Terra Sancta, Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand

JenParrReunion

Ten years ago, Jen Parr and I contemplated our future lives over a glass of Cab Franc. We’d been invited to a party held in the loft of a mutual friend under the Brooklyn Bridge just outside Manhattan. I still hear our words; I can picture the way we draped ourselves across the butcher block island of the industrial-chic kitchen, drinking a fresh vintage of our host’s newest Long Island vineyard experiment.  We soberly (in seriousness of topic) outlined our paths, oblivious to the rest of the guests floating around us.

We both aspired to follow a vinous trail, no matter how windy or steep or challenging it might become. Jen hoped hers might lead her through the great vineyards of the world; mine – I was still unsure of how it would unfold. But now, a decade later, Jen and I are reunited by our careers, on the soils of Terra Sancta in New Zealand.

Terra Sancta Winery in Bannockburn, Central Otago, was formed in 2011 by owners Mark Weldon and Sarah Eliott, Kiwis, but coincidentally, also former Manhattan-ites and still lovers of that grand East Coast city that relentlessly propels folks from its walls and into the vines.

Despite the young age of the Terra Sancta label, the oldest vines back to 1991, one of few wineries to possess a vineyard surpassing 20 years of age in the region. Jen Parr, the head winemaker since 2007, will have completed 8 vintages at the winery, come 2014 (including when it was under different ownership).

Prior to my arrival in Central Otago for the Pinot Noir Fest, of which Jen is the two-time Chairwoman, she answered a few questions about Terra Sancta’s winemaking philosophy and professed her love of Loire Valley Chenin and licorice ice cream.

TerraSanctabottleriverview

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology (answer depends on role of respondent)?    Our philosophy is coined “terra specific” which means we treat our different blocks and sites as individuals and give them the love and attention they require.  Personally I try to understand every nuance of every block and think of them as extended family.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?   Mother Nature is generally kind to us in Bannockburn except in a year with significant spring frosts.   For me, the greatest challenge is trying to nurture grapes without altering their pre-ordained destiny.   Making terrior wines is “hands-off” in the winery but all interactions in the circle of wine life give energy and direction.  The goal is to work synergistically together to make wines that reflect our place.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region?  I struggle to think of any drawback to making wine in Bannockburn.  The climate and soils of the region are so special and perfectly suited to making great Pinot Noir.  The arid climate, the gold mining history, the lack of significant rain and the wonderfully beautiful surroundings all add to the appeal of making wine here. 

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now?  Being involved in a young and growing industry is very exciting.   Pinot Noir excites me the most at the moment as I think in Central Otago we are embarking upon a new era where particular sites will begin to distinguish themselves as extraordinary or of a higher “cru.”  

How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines?  Sauvignon Blanc would probably be the first wine that comes to mind.  I think (would hope) that they view our Pinot Noirs as wines of great quality but they may think they are a bit expensive compared to other new world wines.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least?  Sorry, but only one?  Northern Rhone and Beaujolais are neck and neck for me for red wines and I love Chenin Blanc from the Loire.  I don’t know that I have a least favorite region as I think it’s important to understand all wines of the world.  I drink less Bordeaux perhaps (although that’s changing) but I don’t dislike the wines, they just don’t sing for me in the way Burgundy, the Rhone or Beaujolais do.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected?  Riesling. The sad reality is that this noble grape is largely mistrusted (probably as much as misunderstood).  An amazing wine with such poise and nobility, but it’s incredibly difficult to sell.

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Single Malt, Craft beer… Oh, you probably mean wine – yes, plenty of that.  Lots of Pinot Noir (including rose), Rhone reds and some Beaujolais.  I swap a lot of wines with friends so am always trying wines from all over the South Island.   Riesling and bubbles seem to be the wines for “occasions” in our house.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?  I spend lots of times with our dogs who are heaps of fun.  I’m outside as much as possible:  skiing in winter, mountain biking, hiking and tramping/camping the rest of the year (aside from harvest).  I also love having people around for dinner or a wine.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Right now, in the most wonderful part of summer, I’d like to be here in Wanaka.  Once the season changes, I’d like to go to Italy to explore Piemonte, Tuscany, and Sicily.   I’d love to do a lot of it on a bike.  And if I was there long enough, I’d head to the mountains and ski.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.  This is a hard one to answer as I tend to lay it all out on the table so I don’t think of myself as a modern woman of mystery.  Given my passion (bordering on obsession) for wine, it might surprise some that I used to sell financial software.  Also, I’d do just about anything for a scoop of licorice ice cream.

 

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Sileni Estates, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

LaurenandGrant

I spent the afternoon yesterday in Hawke’s Bay, tasting wine with Grant Edwards, Chief Winemaker at Sileni Estates. Prior to my arrival, Grant emailed back and forth with me about his time at the winery, his winemaking philosophy, and Semillon, the misunderstood grape.

A little info on the winery, from their website:

Sileni Estates is a major vineyard and winery development in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s oldest established vineyard area. The first vintage was in 1998 and since then the wines have won world wide acclaim.

Sileni Estates is named after the Sileni who featured in Roman mythology alongside Bacchus, the god of wine. They celebrated good wine, good food and good company.

Sileni boasts a state of the art winery designed to crush over 1500 tonnes of grapes. Our Winemaking Team have honed their winemaking skills in wineries around the world and we strive to maintain high standards in environmentally sustainable viticultural and winemaking practices. Sileni Estates produce hand crafted wines that reflect the unique characteristics of the vineyards.

Signature Wines and Prices:

  • Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – RRP (NZ) $17
  • The Lodge Hawkes Bay Chardonnay – RRP (NZ) $30
  • The Triangle Hawkes Bay Merlot – RRP (NZ) $32

What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? We want to make wines that are accessible and food-friendly.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Getting consumer share of mind.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing and winemaking in your region? Benefits include high growing degree days, or GDD (esp. for reds), large areas of gravel based soils, well-established horticultural infrastructure, and a major port. Drawbacks include distance to main domestic consumption centres, weather volatility at harvest, and a small local population.

SileniVineyards

What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The fact that we are still one of the few growth categories in many world markets – much of the world still doesn’t know about us.

How do you think Americans (or the outside world in general) perceive NZ wines? I imagine there’s probably very little information available for them to base an opinion on. If anything, they might be surprised that we make wine, that we make good wine, that we make anything other than Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? Tuscany. Champagne.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Semillon. Makes great dry table wine if treated with
respect

What do you drink at home when relaxing? Sileni Semillon, Italian reds, GSM, and Merlot.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Orienteering, reading, and gardening.

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? China.

Give one surprising fact about yourself. Raised two children and still have some hair…

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Why 2014 Will Be Your Best Wine Year Yet

JamsheedTasting.jpg

With the close of the calendar comes contemplation: what have I learned from the wine world in 2013 and what do I expect (or hope) to see in 2014? A few observations: the rise of a new breed of “somm”, the demise of the wine score, the discovery of a Jedi Wine Master, and the impending Best Wine Year Ever.

A Return to the Antipodes

Australia Does the theory “If you build it, he will come” apply to wine? I hope so, because the woeful state of Australian imports in the U.S. belies the health and creativity of the industry Down Under. A recent visit to Astor Wines confirms the lack of antipodean demand — NZ and Oz shared a shelf smaller than the one devoted solely to NY State craft spirits! The Australian wine market has languished for years at the bottom of the U.S. market, so with nowhere else to go but up, expect to see a breakthrough of fresh vinous perspective in stores and restaurants. Importers like Little Peacock, which focus exclusively on Australian wines, have expressed tremendous optimism for the coming year. The wines produced by the new generation of risk-takers in Oz are lean, refined, funky, terroir-driven, and characterful. They don’t all work, but the journey’s as interesting as the destination.
Two to Try: Ben Haines Marsanne 2011, Yarra Valley and Jamsheed “Healesville Vineyard” Syrah 2010, Yarra Valley.

New Zealand This island country faces a different problem from Oz, albeit its wines are still underrepresented in the U.S. New Zealand has done so well with Sauvignon Blanc, the rest of its wines have been ignored. The importance of the grape cannot be overstated. The entire world drinks it (including, to the chagrin of Aussie winemakers, heaps of Aussies). The crisp, grassy style is the New World benchmark for the variety. But there’s plenty more from the land of jagged peaks and glacial lakes to capture a wine drinker’s imagination, and we’re starting to see those wines here in NYC. Fantastic Pinot Noir is trickling out of both Central Otago and, amazingly, Marlborough (the spiritual home to Sauvignon Blanc). For alternative whites, seek out James Millton’s Chenin Blanc. Although produced in the otherwise unremarkable region of Gisborne, he’s been called the Yoda of Kiwi winemakers — a serious endorsement. Is he a true Jedi Wine Master? Drink and find out.
Two to try: Terra Sancta Mysterious Diggings Pinot Noir 2012, Central Otago and Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2011, Gisborne.

The New Somm
In the past, a restaurant’s “sommelier” often fell into one of several categories, each of which — in an era of increased consumer wine knowledge facilitated by ease of access to information and greater willingness to experiment with up-and-coming regions — have become increasingly irrelevant.

We’ve suffered through uninformed yet opinionated waiters posing as sommeliers, informed and condescending sommeliers, and, most exasperating, the Grand Cru-obsessed, pompous sommeliers selling 100 percent Western European lists with 100 percent of the bottles priced over $100. Thus, it was about time the role either be redefined or abolished. (Yes, I acknowledge someone still has to build and manage the list.)

Fortunately for restaurant-goers, we’ve met the new generation of enthusiastic, educated sommeliers or “somms” who’ve reinvented their role, gifting us a new reason to dine out: access to diverse, reasonably priced bottles. Sure, we’ve seen prices on certain wines this year soar to previously unseen heights, but for the rest of us scanning the lower end of a list for value, we’re in luck: lots more under $50 selections than ever. And somms have managed to balance their lists serving traditional needs while presenting to the curious a plethora of distinctive wines such as zero dosage, undisgorged crémant from the Jura.
Where to Try: Corkbuzz by sommelier Laura Maniec, Pearl & Ash by sommelier Patrick Cappiello.

Jamsheed

Domestic Affairs
Wine lists and retail stores in NYC used to be dominated by European selections — France, Italy, and Spain — with small weight given to the New World and even less to the juice of our citizen winemakers. However, with increased demand for local and hyper-local food sourcing, we’re seeing the same interest applied to wine. While in the past a reputable fine dining establishment might not dare be caught with anything from the East Coast on its list, sommelier Thomas Pastuszak at The Nomad has embraced our home state. A huge advocate of NY wines, he puts out an extensive list of Finger Lakes bottles. The best part? These wines offer tremendous value — $35 for a bottle of vibrant Riesling with dinner? Yes, thank you.
Where to Try: The NomadFrankly Wines.

Coravin as a Verb
2013 saw the launch of the most lauded device in recent wine history: the Coravin. It’s a wine extraction system that allows the user to pull out a measure of wine, while safeguarding the remaining precious liquid inside against oxidation with inert, tasteless argon gas. Testing has shown the wine can keep for years, allowing drinkers to sample the bottle to check for development or just have a glass of that rare Cabernet bought at auction now and again with a Wagyu ribeye. The pricey but genius device will change wine drinking habits both at home and in restaurants, truly, forever. Del Posto, an initial supporter of the device, offers rare wines by the glass, and Anfora has updated its menu to include a selection of “Coravin Wines.” What shall we Coravin tonight, dear? And a verb was born.
Where to Try: Del PostoAnfora.

Nobody’s Worrying about Robert Parker
Finally, America’s adherence to a mono-palate (Parker’s) approach to wine is on the decline. Although Parker stepped down in late 2012 from his post as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate — the newsletter he founded that spawned decades of obsession over a 100-point grading system that favored huge wines — in February 2013, he became the first wine critic inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley. Perhaps a deserved award, but the collective unfettering of our taste buds over the year has left individuals free to make independent decisions — or at least use more resources to do so. Trusted local retailers in conjunction with social media apps like Delectable and Drync have been filling the void.
Retailer: Le Du’s Wines
Apps: DelectableDrync.

More Curiosity, More Choice 
Overall, NYC wine drinkers are imbibing during exciting times. Whatever we want, short of actually flying to the vineyard, we can find. Wines from Croatia? Blue Danube’s got them. Need that expressive, biodynamic Umathum from Austria? WineMonger’s your importer. Our increased curiosity and willingness to drink anything has encouraged importers to scour the globe and bring us a range of wines that dazzle in their diversity. So, keep sipping folks — 2014 looks to be our best year yet.

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Filed under 2014 Predictions

New Zealand State of Wine with Sommelier Erin Scala of the Musket Room

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If you missed my column Unscrewed last week in the Village Voice, here’s your second chance to read my interview with The Musket Room’s sommelier Erin Scala.

Erin Scala, originally from the state for lovers (Virginia), is currently having a love affair with New Zealand, especially the wines. She’s a female force on the NYC sommelier scene and has run the wine show at The Musket Room (265 Elizabeth Street, 212-219-0764), New York’s first restaurant showcasing haute Kiwi cuisine, for the last four months. In the interview that follows, Scala details how subway busking and a job making Mexican tortillas led to her career as a sommelier, and she also expounds upon New Zealand’s vinous state of affairs, strongly suggesting we start cellaring future NZ classics before the rest of the world catches on.

How did you get started in the wine and restaurant industry?

Virginia is a blossoming wine country, and as a kid, I used to run among the vines at my dad’s friends’ vineyards, so I was always in close proximity to wine, quite literally. But in high school and college I was a dedicated musician. I played drums in several bands and got to travel to pretty much every state in the U.S. on tour plus several performances elsewhere in the world.

In high school, I had to raise money to afford a band trip, so I got my first restaurant gig at a Mexican joint making tortillas. When I got my first paycheck I couldn’t believe it–$200 all for me! I was so happy I could afford new drum sticks or a cymbal! But one can barely scratch by on drumming gigs, so from then on I almost always had a restaurant gig on the side. When I first moved to Manhattan, I used to busk on the Union Square L platform, but then I got really serious as a sommelier, and it was just too all-consuming to have the time to play in the subways anymore. But I still play for fun, and I’ll take a studio recording job here or there.

Do you remember your first taste of wine and what it was?
I’m pretty sure that my first taste of wine was out of a box at a party, unfortunately. My first taste of a great wine that made me start studying, however, was Fonsalette; shortly after, I tried a killer Monbazillac. Then it just snowballed, and I became obsessed.

How long have you been with the Musket Room, and what is the focus of the list you’ve built?
The Musket Room opened in late May 2013, and I joined the team in the first week. It’s a brand new restaurant, doing something incredibly unique; we just hit our four-month mark and received a Michelin Star! Our talented chef Matt Lambert is from Auckland, and his food is “Modern New Zealand.” The wine list revolves around high-quality New Zealand selections but has plenty of interesting wines from around the world. We have help on the ground in New Zealand from Cameron Douglas, master sommelier.

How does the list complement the food?
Often in US restaurants, you’ll find cheap New Zealand wine in tandem with low-quality food. People will go to a pub or diner and expect a cheap NZ Sauvignon Blanc to go with simple bar food. But there is a whole other side to New Zealand wine, and The Musket Room wine list is a window into this world. We are doing something completely different by offering the best of New Zealand wine with inventive and inspiring New Zealand cuisine. When you drink these great wines with such great food, it presents what is happening in the New Zealand wine realm in a completely different light. I see people’s faces light up every night when I open some of these interesting bottles. Of course, the Kiwi community in NYC is already in the know, and they come in and are happy but not surprised.

Why have you spent so much of your career focused on the wines of the Antipodes, first Aussie and NZ at Public, and now NZ at the Musket Room?
I’ve always tried to grow and learn in my career. I started off working a French wine list, and then moved to an American one. When the job at Public opened up, I was curious to explore the Antipodes because it was a weak area for me. In music school, you learn that to become better at the performance of a particular piece, you must work on your weakest area until it is your best. If you approach practicing this way–be it music or wine study or whatever it is you do–you will make your base level of performance much higher.

The best way to learn the wines of a country (aside from going there) is to work a wine list predominant in those wines. I was curious and ready for a challenge in my career, so I hit the books and learned everything I could about Australia and New Zealand to prepare for the job at Public. When I left Public, my first thought was to challenge myself again and work perhaps a Spanish or Italian wine list, but then I watched a service at The Musket Room, and I knew that something very, very special was happening there, and I wanted to be a part of it. It’s been a great four months, too. There is always so much to learn as a sommelier; the pool of facts, vintages, soils, and varieties is really endless, but focusing in on New Zealand closer than I ever have before–even at Public–has been a great learning experience.

Even though I just spoke about challenging yourself with confronting weaknesses and focusing on the unknown, there is also something to be said for committing yourself to one thing and getting to know it on a deeper level. Like all great things, learning is a paradox because it asks you to both grow and reflect. At Public I was always playing the New Zealand wines off of Australia, always comparing them to Australia. Australia was always part of the conversation. But at The Musket Room, the New Zealand wines stand alone and rightly so.

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Scala pairs New Zealand wines to New Zealand fare

Are there any recent movements in the New Zealand wine industry?
All movements in the New Zealand wine industry are recent, and that is what is so cool about it. I feel that I am watching history being made–a history to which not that many sommeliers are paying attention. Though a few people were making wines back in the late 1800s, the wine scene in New Zealand really started in the late 1970s.

Many of the answers that I search for–e.g. the sub-regions of Central Otago, the long-term ageability of Waitaki Riesling, the future of corks in New Zealand–are still being worked out. When asked about Central Otago sub-regions, many winemakers say “It is just too early to tell–our vines are only 10 to 20 years old!” For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of my job. To learn the fine details, we must all stay tuned with open minds.

There isn’t much chatter about NZ wines beyond Sauv Blanc and Pinots. Would you say NZ wines tend to be overlooked here in the States?
I think the wines of NZ are definitely overlooked–the good wines, that is. A lot of it has to do with consumer expectations and market pricing. Many people expect New Zealand wines to be cheap because of the flood of inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s, and a lot of wine consumers demand value; but many of the best New Zealand wines can be pricey, for a number of reasons.

People who are willing to spend $200 on a bottle of Pinot Noir in a restaurant will often lean toward the familiar and choose a Burgundy rather than experiment with an insanely good Pinot Noir, like, for instance, Rippon’s Tinker’s Field. But there are plenty of values out there, especially if you are willing to spend between $20 and $30 per bottle in a wine shop, or $60 to $80 in a restaurant. We’ve watched emerging wine regions earn respect in the past–California, then Oregon. New Zealand is right there.

I think in 15 to 20 years, I will laugh at this interview because these great wineries that are buzzing just beneath the global radar, like Rippon, Millton, and Fromm, will be collectors’ items by that time. It’s funny–I’m pouring some of these great wines by the glass every night, and I think, “I hope people realize what they are drinking!” I think they do. I can see it in their faces.

Outside of Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, what other grapes are, or could be, important to NZ?
This is a tough question for many reasons, and it cannot be addressed solely by addressing grapes. Why? Because within each category of grape variety lies a collection of different clones, making the answer to “which grape” complex. Additionally, clones develop differently in different regions, and in the hands of different producers. To be true to my sommelier beliefs, I cannot just gloss over all of these issues and spit out grape varieties that are doing well in New Zealand. There are many international grape varieties that grow well there. But, as I mentioned, New Zealand is only a part of the equation. I think a grape variety will do well in a suitable climate and make a great wine only in the hands of a dedicated and thoughtful producer.

What capable and thoughtful producers are working with alternative varieties in New Zealand? I can definitely name a few. Nick Mills (Central Otago) at Rippon is making amazing Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Osteiner. James Millton (Gisborne) bottles some of the most sublime Chenin Blanc I have ever had. He also makes great Viognier. Ostler winery (Waitaki Valley) has Pinot Gris and Riesling that never fails to amaze me. Want a big red that will make your head spin? Try the Syrah from Dry River (Martinborough) with some age on it. For ethereal Pinot Gris, take a trip to Ponui Island and see what Man O’ War winery (Waiheke Island) is making. There is so much more–I could write a book!  [Editor’s note: For further expansion on these topics, visit Scala’s blog.]

What can you recommend from your list that gives customers either a good value and/or a sense of place of the regions from which they come? 
I have plenty of recommendations. From Gisborne, you must try James Millton’s Chenin Blanc before you die! Period. It’s by the glass at The Musket Room, so stop by and cross this must off your bucket list.

From Marlborough is Fromm’s La Strada Pinot Noir with some age. From Martinborough, I suggest Dry River’s Gewürztraminer and Syrah and the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. Out of Waitaki Valley, look for Ostler anything! A few from Central Otago include anything from Rippon, Terra Sancta’s Pinot Noir, and Quartz Reef sparkling wine. From Canterburry, anything from Pyramid Valley. Finally, out of Waipara, I like Pegasus Bay “Bel Canto” Riesling and Mountford Pinot Noir.

Moving beyond the NZ wine scope, have you noticed any consumer trends over the last few years?
Pinot Noir is mind-bogglingly popular. It’s always the top selling wine by the glass and by the bottle at every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.

What are your personal drinking habits off the job?
Beer. At the end of a 12- to 15-hour work day, there is nothing else that compares to an awesome, cold, frothy beer, and the alcohol is lower, so it’s better for your liver. I’m addicted to Lagunitas IPA.

Do you regularly keep any specific wines at home?
There is always a bottle of Campari. But I change up the wine. I like to ask the people at the wine shops to put together a case for me–wrapped up–so I can blind taste the bottles. Last night I blind tasted a Sicilian Frapato, and it totally blew me away.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
I love pairing Gewürztraminer with dishes that have a lavender element. I like Tempranillo with pizza and Cabernet Franc with tacos. Botrytis wines with panna cotta. Old school Rioja with dishes that have a dill element. Funky Poulsard with mushrooms. Chablis can be magical with caviar. Crazy, awesome Riesling pairs best with a book on Philosophy.

If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?
I would be on a boat somewhere, eating some fresh grilled fish, listening to Bach, and washing it all down with something local and delicious.

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Filed under New Zealand, Sommelier